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Lackluster leadership or just the response?

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002


Leader: 1. A person or thing that leads. 2. A horse harnessed before all others in a hitch.

-- Webster's Dictionary.

* * *

In the most demanding of times, it's easy to pick the leaders. Gen. Schwarzkopf in the Gulf War. Joe Torre coaching the Yankees. New York Mayor Giuliani after Sept. 11.

But in the grind of day-to-day business, the hunt for leaders is a lot tougher. The difference between Webster's first and second definition of leader, above, can look terribly slim.

In the Times' just-completed Business Outlook survey, managers of area businesses big and small were asked: Who do you see emerging as the area's top business leaders?

Their halting lack of response and broadly scattered answers -- ranging among dozens of names -- speak volumes. Of 203 participants in our 14th annual business survey, 60 percent did not (or could not) offer a single name.

True area business leaders, it seems, are as rare as a code of ethics in Enron's executive suites.

The simple headline is that Steve Raymund, chief executive of Clearwater's Tech Data Corp., emerged from the survey as this metro area's most cited business leader. Raymund succeeds the No. 1 choice in last year's survey, former Holland & Knight managing attorney Bill McBride, who is now a Democratic candidate in this year's race for Florida governor.

The more complicated headline is that, as the new No. 1, Raymund garnered all of nine mentions in the latest Times survey. McBride, who last year won with just 14 mentions, received only seven this time around. It was the first time in at least five annual surveys that the top leader was chosen with fewer than double digits.

Did our already thin ranks of leadership just become even more diluted? Should we care?

Taken as a group, the bay area's business leaders help set the economic agenda for this area. What types of jobs are coming and at what pay scale? Will this area become a real and competitive base of technology development in the future, or just a place that talks about it? Are local schools and universities geared to deliver the kinds of trained graduates that area businesses will need in order to accomplish these goals?

Raymund was not around Tech Data offices Friday to comment on his exalted title. My guess is he would have laughed, given the paltry number of votes needed this time around to become the Big Kahuna of business leaders.

I certainly had to chuckle at the results because Raymund, while involved in various community organizations that range from the All Children's Hospital board to the Abilities of Florida (assisting the disabled) board, is not a local executive who gives much of his time to chambers of commerce or other regional economic development groups. Tech Data, a large computer products distributor, is in a tough, international business that requires most of Raymund's time.

After Raymund's nine votes at No. 1, McBride and Outback Steakhouse CEO Chris Sullivan tied at No. 2, each with seven. They are followed by land lawyer Rhea Law of Tampa's Fowler White law firm and CEO John Sykes of Tampa's Sykes Enterprises (six mentions apiece).

With five mentions each are Tampa Electric president John Ramil, chairman Tom James of St. Petersburg's Raymond James Financial Inc., CEO Sandy MacKinnon of Tampa's Yale Industrial Trucks, and president Bill Habermeyer of St. Petersburg's Florida Power.

Some respondents, when asked about leaders, could not recall Habermeyer's still unfamiliar name -- he's been here only 14 months -- and simply said "Florida Power's CEO" instead.

Another newcomer, CEO Dan DeFosset at Tampa's Walter Industries, says he's impressed by the level of community participation by this area's business people. As head of a large, local company that, in DeFosset's words, was "disengaged" from the area in recent years, the CEO wants to get quickly involved. (He earned one mention this year.)

At DeFosset's former job in Michigan, executives at Chrysler, Ford and GM dominated the leadership ranks of the business community. Among Tampa Bay leaders, the opposite is true, DeFosset says -- with some relief.

"There is no dominant name."

* * *

After looking at the results of last year's survey, I lamented then how the area lacked a core of strong business leaders. I'm still worried about our lack of depth. But now I better realize that many vibrant metro areas face the same challenge of shallow reserves. And like other regions, the Tampa Bay area is adjusting to the leadership deficit. It must.

"There is more and more demand for business leaders and fewer top-level leaders to handle that demand," says Stuart Rogel, director of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a seven-county economic development group. Business is more competitive. The current economy is tougher. Companies have flattened layers of management, leaving fewer people available for community tasks.

"We realize some people are here today, gone tomorrow," Rogel says. His strategy: Tap the talents of executives while they are here, even if they are only following a playbook already in use.

Sometimes, Rogel hooks a strong player such as Bob Peiser. The CEO of Vitality Beverages chairs the partnership's international advisory committee with a style that delights Rogel.

"I dread the day when I get the phone call," Rogel says, that signals Peiser is moving on to another assignment. Still, having Peiser aboard has been a plus.

There are a few corporate exceptions to the drought of available leadership talent. Tampa Electric's Ramil is clearly the power company's front man for community leadership tasks. That gives Bob Fagan, CEO of parent company TECO Energy and Ramil's boss, the luxury to stay largely focused on running the energy company.

* * *

Who was picked in the latest Times survey as "top" business leaders is no less notable than those who have slipped or were not chosen at all.

Four surveys ago, John Sykes was riding high (17 votes in 1999) among our most influential business leaders. At the time, Sykes had stepped away from day-to-day management of his Sykes Enterprises (technical call center operators for business clients) and was busy endowing the University of Tampa's business school (now named for Sykes). Or he was stepping up to help lead the leap-of-faith effort to make the Tampa Bay area the host of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

When Sykes Enterprises began to struggle financially, Sykes had to return to the company as CEO. And he handed off his Olympics post. That pullback is why Sykes received only six mentions in our 2002 survey.

A year ago, Bob Martinez, former Florida governor and then-chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, received five mentions in our survey. This year? None. Several years ago, when Clearwater real estate consultant Lee Arnold chaired the Tampa Bay Partnership, he earned a relatively high 11 votes. This year, he barely registered.

Ed Turanchik, frontman for the area's 2012 Olympics bid, earned a respectable four votes last year. Now that the Tampa Bay area failed to make the first cut by the Olympics committee, Turanchik's glow has dulled (no mentions this year).

Clearly missing from the leadership list this year is any representative from Bank of America, the biggest bank in the Tampa Bay area and throughout Florida. The bank's last state president, Cathy Bessant, operated from Tampa but did not stay long. She now works in the Carolinas for the bank. Her successor, Tim Laney, works out of Jacksonville.

And what of Vince Naimoli, managing partner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball franchise? He won a handful of votes from survey respondents in 1999 and 2000. Then, like the Rays, he faded.

A handful of area business executives received multiple votes for the first time. Among them: Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce chief Kim Scheeler; St. Petersburg Times editor and president Paul Tash; Deanne Roberts, founder and president of Tampa's Roberts Communications public relations company; and Judy Genshaft, president of the University of South Florida.

One unfortunate (but not surprising) omission in this year's list of business leaders: area technology entrepreneurs. Before the Internet Bubble burst last spring, such groups as the Tampa Bay Technology Forum began making noise that their tech leaders were players in the local economy and deserved more attention from the traditional (if sleepy) powers at the area chambers of commerce. Since the tech decline, the saber rattling is quieter.

Still, tech leader Tom Wallace is starting to get some broader notice. A co-founder of Brainbuzz.com and now an investor in several tech startups, Wallace received two votes in the latest survey. But it remains to be seen if Wallace actually wants to become a business leader beyond his comfortable and tieless tech niche.

A few final observations from the latest Times survey of leaders:

You can count the number of women mentioned on one hand. Lawyer Rhea Law, public relations consultant Deanne Roberts and USF president Judy Genshaft are the only three to receive more than a single mention. Here's room for big improvement.

Minorities are sorely lacking among the leaders mentioned. This is another perennial problem to address in a region as diverse as the Tampa Bay area.

Finally, what should we say to the whopping 60 percent of the business participants who declined to offer up the name of any Tampa Bay business leader?

Cat got your tongue? Get out, meet some folks and help out. Next year, you might make the list.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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